Drawn in 1888 by John Tenniel (1820–1914), the first illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the same year of the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel.
“There floats a phantom on the slum’s foul air
Shaping, to eyes which have the gift of seeing,
Into the spectre of that loathly lair.
Face it – for vain is fleeing.
Red-handed, ruthless, furtive, un-erect,
‘Tis murderous crime, the nemesis of neglect.”
The above illustration and piece of prose from an 1888 version of the satirical magazine Punch, also reproduced in the Illustrated London News, reflects the fact that knife crime has been with us for a long time. The Victorians had a great way of dramatising things, but knife crime is, and always has been somewhat dramatic to people.
Knives are ubiquitous, every day and easily obtained weapons. For the purposes of aggression or indeed for those of self-defence, they become, for many, the readily available weapon of choice. Suffuse this availability with other complex social phenomena and before you know it, knife crime is back with us.
In fact, it never left. Along with other crime statistics, knife crime interacts with complex variables in whatever age it occurs. Just as the slums of Whitechapel had their own problems, the modern world has its issues too. Indeed, many have associated knife crime as substantially a product of race, but this would be an oversimplification and an unfair projection on certain sectors of the community. The reality is, knife crime has not changed too much since the days of Jack the Ripper. Problems of mental health, addiction, class differences and poverty bedecked the streets of Victorian England every bit as much as in a comparative sense they do now. Young people in particular, with limited opportunity, often living in built-up conurbations where their social status is confronted with obvious privilege find little hope of realising any ambitions they may have. The attendant group closure and the need to protect oneself in a society which has seen austerity and decline impact on their educational opportunities and the very forces set into society to protect them, create a perfect storm for paranoia, tribalism, insular thinking and reactivity with scant regard to the consequences.
The stark reality is there are multiple victims to a knife crime. The tragic young people who have lost their lives, without provocation or implication in anything other than going about their day-to-day lives, are not the only victims. Perpetrators lives and opportunities, already limited, cut short completely as those apprehended are incarcerated from a young age and those not caught often have to find refuge in lives of downward spiralling criminality protected by criminals who would choose to exploit them for advantage. Families of both the deceased and perpetrators look on in grief and bewilderment as their hopes for the future are destroyed. Indeed, society itself, often has a habit of speculatively pointing an accusatorial finger at some form of parental deficit that may have contributed to what can only be described as tragedies.
For the victim and the perpetrator, a moment of lost thought, a second’s self-righteousness or assertion of power, results in a timeline of misery and unintended consequences.
Our modern media do not help with this in pursuit of ratings and to foster interest by the public, politicians are asked in interview to resign, rather than have a dialogue about the complex causes that result in these outcomes.
But despite the complexity, there is one fundamental cause at the heart of this issue. Punch got it over a century ago and the evidence is it is back with us with a vengeance. Poverty is no respecter of race, geography, social group or family.
In the sixth richest country in the world, years of austerity, whatever its certification, have seen the growth of food banks and increasing desperation among so many. The implementation of universal credit has taken ordinary citizens to consider taking their lives at an unprecedented level. The measures of providing direct rental from benefit, ensures the impoverished don’t make the mistake of robbing Peter to pay Paul only to find they are evicted through rental arrears was introduced in the 1970s. It revolutionised the housing stability of so many of our impoverished people. The ideologues overseeing universal benefit, lack the organisational memory to remember how important that mission was and have sought to reverse it with disastrous consequences.
Before we throw money that we don’t have at the situation, let’s use the funds we have for sensible measures. When it comes to Universal Credit, let’s ensure that its implementation is humane, calm and with the notion of administration to citizens in mind. Anybody seeing the film I, Daniel Blake and who has never drawn benefit, people of the 40 plus generation and older, shudder at the prospect ever having the misfortune of needing to rely on state aid, for it very clearly is not there alongside an increasingly unresponsive health service and a political class that does not listen to the population resulting in the Brexit debacle we now have.
Yes, poverty is the centre of knife crime and our political centre involves an arrogant elitist political class that has lost the ability to listen to ordinary people. Once we again are visited in ordinary lives and in the community at large by “the nemesis of neglect”.